The career path of Toronto-based producer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Don Mills (real name Miloš Angelov) has certainly been unconventional. It’s taken him from studying classical violin in Serbia, to work with top Canadian R&B and rock acts, and now production and songwriting work on hit tracks and albums from such major international hip-hop and pop artists as J Cole, Juice WRLD, Maroon 5, Rea Garvey, and Giveon.

This is not a route Mills could have predicted, but he was always confident music-making was in his future. “Both my father and grandfather made a living from making music, so this is like the family business. It’s embedded in me,” he says.

Mills studied violin, then percussion, at Stanković Music School, and often performed with the Belgrade Youth Symphony, prior to moving to Toronto with his family at age 17. He then transitioned to playing bass, and after a stint studying at Humber College, soon became an in-demand player with Canadian R&B artists. “I played with Zaki Ibrahim and filled in for artists like Divine Brown and the Philosopher Kings,” he recalls.

His chops were also honed through regular gigs at famed (and now defunct) Toronto nightclub and muso hangout The Orbit Room, with Wade O. Brown’s The A Team and Hot Fire, and then via session work with such artists as Fito Blanko and Ray Robinson.

“I always wanted to do multiple things in music”

A stylistic detour came when he was recruited by rocker Matthew Good for his band. “I joined just prior to recording the Live At Massey Hall album in 2008, and that led to a really good run of eight years,” says Mills.

His move into writing and production came organically. “I always wanted to do multiple things in music, beyond being the bass player,” he says. “I was always an audiophile who loved listening to well-recorded music. From doing sessions, I watched producers do their thing, and I got interested in that. Around 2008, I bought my own computer, with a Logic setup and decent speakers, and went from there.”

It’s only been in the last four years that production has become a key focus for Mills, and he credits star producer— and now regular collaborator – Boi-1da as a major inspiration. “His making big records sound so good really inspired me to get better at producing and writing, and to start creating music for other genres,” he acknowledges.

A collaboration with Boi-1da on the co-writing of a Juice WRLD track, “Maze,” (featured on the 2019 No. 1 album Death Race for Love) was a turning point, and the duo continue to work together. “We’ve just scored a song for an upcoming Halle Berry movie, Bruised,” says Mills.

He recently signed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV in the U.S., and work offers are flooding in. He’ll be featured on upcoming albums by Alessia Cara, Giveon, Ne-Yo, and more, and he confides that “I’ve just finished a movie soundtrack, a big American production, my first movie score as a writer-producer.”

Canadian artists with whom Mills has worked as a producer, co-writer, or player in recent years include Tyler Shaw, Dan Talevski, Banners, and Maya Killtron.

Amidst his busy schedule, Angelov has found time to write and record his own material, released online under his Don Mills moniker, and through his own imprint, Politik Records. “I didn’t want to let good songs not come out, so this is a channel for my music to get out there,” he says.

 These cuts reflect his stylistic versatility (“all genres excite me”), and feature guest vocals from the likes of Nuela Charles, Bryn, and longtime pal JRDN. “This is more of a fun thing for me than a money grab, or an attempt to make a career as a solo artist.”

Through our new series of stories, Visual Arts X Music, we aim to present you with visual artists for whom music plays an essential role, in both their artistic approach, and their lives.

“I have the distinction of being the first drummer ever fired by Fred Fortin,” jokes visual artist Martin Bureau, who’s created the covers of every album for the father of the so-called “Lac-Saint-Jean sound” since Joseph Antoine Frédéric Fortin Perron – a 1996 album with a mouthful of a title that Bureau quotes flawlessly. Impressive. “It’s easy for me to remember because I know both the Fortins and the Perrons,” he says.

Bureau and Fortin met in Saint-Félicien, in Québec’s Lac-Saint-Jean region, at the Polyvalente des Quatre-Vents school back in the mid-1980s. “We lived in the same neighbourhood, and started playing music together,” he says. Bureau was playing drums at the time – “the drummer of Fred’s father’s band had sold me my first drum set when I was 14 or 15” – and Fred was playing bass, which has remained his main instrument. “Right from secondary school, Fred stood out,” Bureau recalls. “His talent was out of this world.”

Because he couldn’t say as much about his own personal performance behind the drums, Bureau soon turned to photography and painting. It was only natural that he’d end up helping his pal establish his visual identity, down the line. “It happened naturally,” says Bureau. “In his early twenties, Fred put out a recording, and I’d just received my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. That we would end up working together was a foregone conclusion.”

While the cover of Fred Fortin’s debut album shows a rather classical picture of the musician, Bureau has created each of the singer’s following emblematic, naturalistic, and dream-like album covers since Plancher des vaches in 2000. “Back in those days, labels always wanted to see the singer’s face on the album cover,” the painter says, as he was looks at the first Gros Méné (1999) cover, which showed a much greater artistic freedom in spite of the fact that it used a photograph and not a painting. “The Tue ce drum Pierre Bouchard album cover reflected what we were doing at the time, which was playing hockey outside,” he says. “I had this black and white lab photo, and I was still honing my Photoshop abilities.”

The record company La Tribu, for whom Fortin recorded his sophomore album, gave free visual rein to Bureau. The label would also initiate a series of meetings between visual artists and musicians, on the initiative of the its co-founder Suzie Larivée, a visual arts enthusiast. Bureau ended up collaborating with, among others, Galaxie, Stephen Faulkner, and more recently, singer-songwriter Tire le coyote who had him design all of his album covers from Mitan (2013) on.

Bureau’s work as an album cover designer also helped him get work as a photographer, and later, as a music video producer thanks to a series of happy accidents that caused him to tackle documentary production from 2008 on. His 2015 L’Enfer marche au gaz! sheds a harsh light on the environment of stock car races in Saint-Félicien’s Autodrome.

As for the Bureau/Fortin modus operandi, Fortin usually pays a visit to Bureau in his Québec City studio, and reviews the works his old chum has produced over the last few years. “We look at some 40 to 50 paintings while listening to the new album, and we end up saying, ‘This one could be a fit,’” says Bureau. Fred will sometimes go as far as borrowing one of Bureau’s painting titles outright, as he did for the Planter le décor (2004) album.

A rare departure from their strategy, Microdose is a buzzing lysergic misdemeanor from 2009. “Fred was telling me that he was having fun pretending that he was Pink Floyd while he was writing and recording, and I came up with the idea of creating a Wish You Were Here pastiche because his female dog Wendy had just died,” says Bureau. In death, she replaced Syd Barrett. “It’s a huge reference, but there still will be people calling us copy cats on Facebook,” Bureau jokes.

Is he still playing drums? Not really. “I used to have a routine of coming home for lunch before going back to the studio, and, as I was getting sleepy, I would play some drums before going back to my paintings.” he says. The playlist included Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Black Crowes, and Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Final question: Will this 25-year-old collaboration end up lasting a lifetime? “I used to tell Fred, ‘Go ahead, try using someone else. Have fun,’ Today, however, I no longer feel that way. The fact that we’re still doing this thing together after 25 years is huge,” says the artist. All the more so because this continuity has helped consolidate Fred Fortin’s monumental life work. Just listen to Scotch, and you’ll automatically recall the orange end-of-the-world hues. Or remember the sickly trees and the cranes of the Planter le décor album cover when you hear the music. “I’m glad to hear this because I, too, love thinking about my favourite bands, and lots of images re-surface in my mind.”

When Shawnee Kish was announced as the winner of CBC Music’s Searchlight contest in March of 2020 for her song “Building a Wall” – the first Indigenous artist to take home the top spot in the annual talent competition – it should have catapulted her to stages across the country. Except that a week later, all those stages were shut. There would be no performance at JUNO Week. Or anywhere, really. The global pandemic was quickly decimating so much of the arts, culture, and entertainment business, leaving nothing but uncertainty for most performers. So she did what she always does in challenging times: she wrote more songs.

“Whenever I’m faced with a struggle, I go right back to music,” says Kish, on the phone from her current home base in Edmonton. “The pandemic wasn’t even the worst part. In the past two years, a lot has changed in my world on a personal level. My mom got sick, and she’s been the one thing I thought could never change. She had this massive stroke. Watching her go through that, being there when she [was] on life support, it felt like all of a sudden my whole world was one big, ‘What do I do?’” So I use the art to launch me into self-empowerment and inspiration, to get over whatever I need to get over.”

Music as medicine was a lesson Kish learned at an early age. She began writing and recording songs as early as five years old. Then, as a teenager, she discovered it was a way to deal with the pressures of trying to fit in, as a young Mohawk woman coming to terms with her Two-Spirit identity.

“I don’t think I’d be here today without music,” she says. “I wasn’t out. And there was pressure from peers and family to fit into a certain place in the world. Not just my sexuality, but also my Indigenous background. I didn’t grow up on a reserve. So, [I was] trying to understand if there was a place for me. I remember waking up and feeling so alone. Then I ‘d take off on my bike and go into a bush and sit there, connect with the land, and write music. That felt like safety. Like healing and self-expression. I realized that I can be okay. And what if this could be my future? That I could have purpose and meaning? And I’ve never looked back.”

“I use the art to get over whatever I need to get over”

Indeed. Apart from Searchlight, Shawnee’s many recent achievements include sharing stages with Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Alicia Keys, and appearing on Billboard’s 2019 list of Musicians You Need To Know, and MTV’s list of Top Gender Bending Artists.

Shawnee’s self-titled EP (released June 25, 2021) features the singles “Got it Bad,” a fiery blues-rock song that reached No. 4 on the CBC Music Top 20 countdown, and the scorching, soulful pop song “Burnin’ Love,” featuring Jamie Fine, formerly of the duo Elijah Woods x Jamie Fine. The two met through the Allan Slaight JUNO Master Class, a development and mentorship program.

It hasn’t always been so smooth to navigate the Canadian music industry. Kish recalls being asked, when she was younger, to change her hair to be more appealing to an imagined straight male audience. And getting a lot of unsolicited advice from business associates who seemed to know more about who she should be than she did. Today, as a proud member of the LGTBQ+ community, who gives back to organizations like Kids Help Phone, Kish hopes that the songs she writes from all these life experiences will help others.

“I don’t have control over the hands my music will get into, where my career will end up, where music will take me,” she says. “But I do have control of growing as a writer, as a lyricist, as a person who can stand tall and tell my story. And I hope that I might be able to change someone else who’s like me.”